Monday, August 31, 2009

The Nicest Guys Ever are from South Dakota

(written August 30, 2009)

Wall Drug is for kids folks. Unless you want to buy silly souvenirs, there’s not much need to stop in there. Ironically, the town made it quite easy for me to leave soon after I arrived because the entire town’s power went out. Got on the road and headed to Custer State Park where I was planning on tenting out in the wilderness that night among the buffalo and whatever other wildlife they could throw at me. I have a zero degree sleeping bag with me and a self-erecting tent so I should be fine. Took the exit for the park and realized that the blackout had reached this far too. All the traffic lights were out and no one could sell you gas because the pumps were all electronic now. I had enough to last me the ride through the park and more but since I had a few near missed on “E,” I was trying to be cautious. Got back on the road and realized I was going in the wrong direction because I paid too much attention to the gas station and didn’t see that the gas station was the turnoff for the park. Oh well. By the time I made it back to the gas station, their price light was on indicating power was back on so I got some gas and needed some caffeine.

As I was going inside to get coffee, a man saw my plates and said, “Far from home, eh?” His name was Milty Belt, a retired professor of psychology at a nearby college. He had a black pickup and was very interested to hear about my trip so he waited outside on the bench to chat as I got my drink. We talked for a while and he was awfully funny. Told me how much bales of hay cost ($600-800 for those big round ones), and got a kick out of my city girl ignorance of all things country. Penny, the woman who worked at the station came up to clean up a bit and was saying how she NEVER wanted to go to NYC, “too many people. The only thing I’d want to see is the Statue of Liberty anyway.” They seemed to know one another and I later found out that he lived up the road in Keystone. He asked if I was going to go riding and I assumed he meant horseback. He meant motorcycle riding. Right! I forgot that so many folks around here are bikers because Sturgis is just north of here. There are Harleys everywhere and there’s even a special hand gesture they do to one another when they pass on the road.

Milty asked if I’d be interested in a ride since he goes around the park at least twice a week to get the bike out and enjoy the scenery. He understood if I didn’t want to since I just met him but I assured him that this fact didn’t stop me from experiencing something fun and he seemed to be someone that folks around here knew. We were to meet at the park entrance in 30 minutes or less and on the way, I left a hilarious voicemail for my folks, giving them his name, the cross-streets of the gas station, that he knew Penny who worked there and added that if I didn’t call back in a few hours after the ride, assume the worst. Needless to say, I did. It was a blast. I have never been on a Harley before. He asked and I mentioned my Vespa ride through Manhattan, which was also with a guy I had just met at a gallery opening. But “Uncle Milty,” which was always his nickname, looked at me and said seriously, “that’s a scooter.”

We saw the Needle’s Eye, some buffalo resting along the road, drove through the town of Custer and he brought me back to my campsite where I’d tent that night. He thought I was crazy since it would get down into the 40s that night but I was intent on doing it. The area was situated right on a lake with swimming but it was already so cold. I didn’t even have socks on during the ride because I didn’t think I’d need socks in the summer! I had to borrow proper shoes and a sweatshirt from my “ain’t no junk in this trunk” collection. Thank goodness I hadn’t gotten rid of that stuff yet. The ride was chilly but being behind him cut down on the wind. I thanked him for a lovely ride on his Road King and he wished me safe travels in the future. He said I reminded him of a girl he used to date and she was crazy too. With those kind remarks, he went off into the mountains.

At this point, I was not about to set up tent just yet. I wanted to explore other parts of the park and get something to eat. I happened upon this lodge and a general store. Bought some jerky and cheese (hilarious) for emergencies, a bacon pop for Kobe and went for an early dinner at Blue Bell Lodge. Had the buffalo meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a glass of cabernet, the second drink of my trip so far. Two couples were just leaving the outdoor patio when I sat down so I pretty much had the place to myself. I used the time to take advantage of my weekend minutes and called Matthea to tell her about my ride. As we were wrapping up, three guys came out onto the patio and sat down with their drinks. I felt I might be too loud on the phone so I apologized. They were cool. Told Matthea I was going to go over there when I hung up to join them. Just felt like it. Sure enough, it was a good decision. They were very nice. All married with teenagers, all from eastern South Dakota. They were on a golf/hiking/gambling boys weekend and had just returned from the summit of Harney Peak, a 7,242 feet peak nearby and were doing the rounds at the lodges in the park.

They didn’t seem to believe that I was from New York because I didn’t have an accent and wasn’t swearing so I took out my ID and proved it. We chatted about my trip so far and what they all do for a living: sales, jewelry and telecommunications (Mike, Brian and Paul respectively). Mike was the basketball coach for their kids and that’s how they all met each other. Their kids have been friends for years. Sweet. So they were staying near Deadwood and were heading up there soon to go out to some restaurant and go to another casino. I didn’t know much about Deadwood. Hadn’t seen the HBO show and as with most of the places I had been, didn’t do much research. This was the town where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head. He was a gunslinger in town. Deadwood was also a mining town and I got to see a mine from the road. It just kept going down.

The boys invited me to come with them and I accepted. I already trusted they were good men it sounded like an adventure. Brian drove with me and we followed Paul and Mike. I had already eaten but they had dinner at Midnight Star, a restaurant on Main Street, Deadwood, owned by Kevin Costner. He had filmed “Dances with Wolves” nearby and loved the area so he opened his own restaurant and plastered the walls with himself (costumes, photographs, memorabilia from each and every one of his movies). Very humble. I had chocolate cake for dessert and afterwards, we headed to Saloon No. 10, another famous spot. This was where Hickok was shot in the late 1800s. It had sawdust floors, smoke-filled air, blackjack tables, slot machines and young girls in corsets. It seemed to be a trend among the ladies but some of them were wearing them with strap bras, which was just tacky. If you’re gonna wear a corset, ya gotta have your breasts hanging out properly. C’mon ladies! Mike and I played the roulette machine and won $45 in less than 20 minutes. It was fun. Although it was his $5 that started us off, he split the winnings with me. What a generous guy. Paul, on the other hand, was playing blackjack and I don’t think he ended up in the black at the end of the night. But he did get to participate in some very interesting bachelorette festivities and I’m sure that made it memorable. Similar to Hogs & Heifers in NYC, this seemed to be the place to come for your hen party. There were girls all over the place handing out condom bead necklaces and brides-to-be asking for personal items, scavenger hunt style, that she could wear. You could also see penis straws in the drinks of many girls’ glasses strewn across the bar. My new friends were very good at meeting gals obviously. A few they met on the hiking trail snuck up on them at the restaurant that night and later on the street when we were all kicked out, offering us a cab ride home since they ordered a 16-passenger van. See, all the girls must have known that these were the good ones.

After a stroll down the road to another bar that had live music but few patrons, we met another young lady from Colorado who had enough energy to power Deadwood. We assumed she worked there since she recruited us to come in and enjoy the tunes but we think she just felt bad there were no people around and the band was still playing their hearts out. She strangely turned a night out drinking with friends into a lesson about homelessness and how the government could do better economically to house them for free than let them live on the streets due to the high costs of frequent ER visits by homeless individuals. Not sure what this girls major was back “home” but it must be either political science, social work or theatre because she was definitely a character with a lot of research under her belt.

We went back up to Saloon No. 10 to meet up with Brian’s friend Mike who was a realtor in Deadwood and had found his house for him 6 or so years ago. His wife, daughter and her boyfriend were also in attendance and they were a fun bunch! Be sure to check out the photo of Kim’s boyfriend because it was killing me to come up with the actor who he reminded me of. I said Noel Wyle but I think he’s more like this younger actor that was in all of those “American Pie”-type movies. After the saloon closed at 1:30, we all headed to their house for “breakfast.” Mike and Diane actually made a huge spread for a bunch of drunks who didn’t want the night to end. I had drive their Escalade there since these kind gentlemen were in no shape to drive at this point and were responsible enough to let the New Yorker who knew when to call it quits have the keys to gladly chauffeur them around.

Breakfast was fabulous and hanging out with this crew was a blast. We headed home to the house near Deer Mountain. The guys had already offered me a floor in their house to stay over since the park was an hour south and I sure as hell wasn’t interested in tenting any longer. I had a lovely room all to myself and we all crashed immediately. Woke up to see what an amazing property this was. Surrounded by tall Ponderosa Pines with wraparound decks, this lodge in the Black Hills (named by Sioux Indians due to the darkness of those Ponderosas) was the perfect place to chill out and write. And that’s what I am doing. Brian graciously offered the keys to me so I could stay as long as I wanted before I headed out farther west on the next leg of my trip. So cool.

After breakfast with the fellas, as they headed back east for Monday jobs, I chose to go see Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore in one fell swoop. It was a beautiful day, perfect for viewing mountaintop masterpieces. They were both incredible. I was worried that I wouldn’t be impressed, having seen so many images of them over the years, but hearing the history and how they were created (and are still being created), was very educational and a cool experience. I even got a piece of the rock blasted away from Crazy Horse for free outside of the sculptor’s studio and plan on giving it to my nephew who will hopefully some day take his family there and see the completed sculpture.

A few things I learned from being out with the guys: no dice games in South Dakota casinos (why, dunno), “motorboating,” “tramp stamp,” “2-bagger,” some guys are sensitive enough to buy the David Foster tribute album from PBS and South Dakotans love to “call bullshit.” Can’t explain here, look it up.

Golden Guys, Free Haircuts and Badlands

(written Aug. 28, 2009)

Lunch for farmers is 10:30 a.m. apparently. Jerry, who sat next to me had a huge slab of fried ham and hash browns and brought his own tomatoes in a Ziploc bag. You might be wondering if Jerry, with his checkered buttoned down and suspenders, chatted me up like all the only kind gentlemen I sit next to at the counter. Well, no he didn’t. And yes, I took offense. I got the Midwest nod but that was all. This all occurred at Betty’s Café in downtown Mitchell. I had my first meal of the day there at 11:15 and many of the towns’ farmers were already finishing up lunch as I ate my eggs over easy, hash browns drowned in butter and wheat toast. I highly recommend drowning your hash browns in butter. They probably singlehandedly put me in the grave a year earlier, but it was well worth it. Right as I was leaving, another Golden Guys crew was having lunch together. Where are the Golden Girls? Do the older women in these towns not like one another enough to meet up for lunch each day? Or are they too busy making up their homes to come out to the local coffee shoppe?

I just so happened to arrive in Mitchell in the middle of their corn festival so Main Street was lined with amusement rides and food vendors, mostly BBQ. I asked at Betty’s why it hadn’t started up yet and she looked at me for a second and said, “because the kids are still in school.” Duh! I wonder if she thought I wanted to jump on the tea cups ride as soon as they turned it on. The town itself was very cute if you could see it past all the cotton candy and prizes for squirting water quickly into the clown’s mouth. I took some of the side streets to get away from the excitement and saw this little old-fashioned barber shop. I walked in but no one was there. Then, all of a sudden, I heard “Can I help you sweetheart?” A nice gentleman that resembled a good looking Dom Deluise came out from the back room. The cool Hawaiian-type shirt may have helped the Dom look-alike come to mind. So I asked if he’d cut my hair straight across and how much that would be. I told him I usually went to barbers in the city since it was cheaper than going to a girl salon. I didn’t remember to use my regular come-on, “Do you do girls in here?” That always goes over well back home. He said we’d “figure something out.”

So I sat down in the cool red chair and he put that little white tissue paper thing around my neck as if I was going to get a shave and began chopping off the inches. He even recited the amount of months it would take to regrow. I never realized there was a calculation for that. 8 months apparently. Woah! Dave asked what I did back home and whether there were real George Castanza’s there. He also knew about Five Points so I mentioned that I used to work in the courts right next to that spot. Maybe he’s seen Gangs of New York or something because when I asked him if he had ever been, he said no. But he had a friend from here that had gone out there to do his music thing downtown, but ended up in computers. Since I already knew what he did for a living, he proceeded to tell me that George McGovern’s barber was cutting my hair. I think he sort of asked me if I knew who that was and honestly, I recognized the name but couldn’t for the life of me remember exactly who he was, but I nodded regardless. I knew he was a politician though. And now I was assuming he was from South Dakota. Sure enough, I was spot on. He apparently grew up in Mitchell and lived right down the road. Mr. Carter, my new barber, said you could even go knock on his door and he’d invite you in for a chat. Not sure I wanted to do that but good to know. So the cut was done and he did a fabulous job. I asked him what the damage was and he said it was on him. Unreal! Another gentleman giving me somethin’ for nuthin’. He said he enjoyed the conversation and he wouldn’t take anything. So sweet. I thanked him and plan on sending him a postcard from Mt. Rushmore.

Down the road was the Corn Palace and the way it was advertised, you’d think it was an amusement park of some sort. It’s cool to see but I do hope no one travels here to see just that. As luck would have it, I arrived on the day that Joan Jett and the Blackhearts was playing there and I couldn’t help but wonder when I saw the auditorium if they would sell out the seats. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I heart her but I still didn’t want to stick around until 7:00 and pay $35 for “I Love Rock & Roll” and a bunch of other songs I probably wouldn’t recognize. Sorry Joan. I did walk around and learn some history of the palace. It’s quite a structure. Made of corn husks and dried kernels. Very unique for sure! Walking back to my car, I ran into Joan’s tour bus driver. He was cleaning the bug carcasses off the windshield with a ladder. He said, “it’s like it’s raining bugs around here.” Considering I had to stop twice on the way to clean off my own, I agreed. And their guts get all sticky and make it real hard to clean. I feel bad for the Queens car wash guy that will have to deal with my vehicle when I return. Gross!

So I got back on the road and headed to the Badlands. On the way, I got mooned by these young boys in a pickup. I saw the ass all of a sudden but couldn’t believe that kids still did this sort of thing. After the pants came back on, they drove so fast, I never caught up to give him a thumbs up. Wasn’t enough of a quick draw to snap a shot of the full moon. Sorry. I stopped at a rest area to get some information and this kind woman gave me a ton of useful tips on seeing the Black Hills and all the cool monuments in 3-4 days. I have no clue whether it will take that long but I did tell here I wasn’t all that interested in anything museum-related or exercise-related. Hiking (which really means walking) was fine but no biking or any of those exertion-type things. So I got my map and was all set. The sunflowers along the route were cool and the highway signs advertising Wall, SD and other sights were hilarious! They know how to keep you entertained on such a long flat road. And I hit 2,000 miles on this stretch.

With one eye on the road and the other on the signs, I kept mistaking “Supper Club” for “Stripper Club.” I started to think this highly Christian part of the country had some skeletons in their closets. The fonts they use confused me at 75mph (don’t worry, on this interstate, the limit is 75 so it’s all good). I also saw a billboard for an auto show that had the original General Lee, the red “01” car from the Dukes of Hazzard. It all comes full circle because yesterday on Fresh Air, Quentin Tarantino was saying how he had studied under James Best, the guy who played Roscoe P. Coltrane. I’m still a little surprised that South Dakota never welcomed me on the way in. But they did notify me that I had just entered Mountain Time Zone so now I was 2 hours behind New York.

The Badlands I am not even going to write about because I am still in awe of what I just witnessed. I know I went to the Grand Canyon as a young child, about 6 or 7 years old I think, so I don’t remember my reaction to that. But this was just incredible. I felt like I was in a painting or someone was going to pull on the Sears Portrait Studio scene cord and it would vanish behind me. So just check out the photos and you’ll maybe see what I mean. While I was taking tons of photos, I had one of those “thank goodness for digital” moments. I had this flashback of what it must have been like when we had film cameras and I wanted to take lots of photos on a family vacation. My mother must have limited us. I don’t remember her doing that but I do remember her limiting our use of paper towels while “camping” in Maine. And flash bulbs and developing rolls of film are much more costly in comparison to a few Brawny’s. While in the Badlands, I did learn why those bales of hay are scattered all over the land. I thought they were separated so the horses could wander over once they were done with one and scratch open the plastic that wraps it up. But stupid city girl that I am, I learned from this nice couple in the Badlands that a baler machine goes around and collects the hay (which I guess is just floating around?) and makes those bales and leaves them wherever they are. And later, the farmer collects them for use with the animals. I also learned from a couple of women that I met at a rest area that I was “known” on the highway but other travelers. She said that they always talk to folks along the way and they kept hearing people say, “there’s someone from New York on these roads.” Hilarious!

Now I’m in Wall, SD, which was recommended to me as a quirky tourist attraction but a must-see. Since I just drove through that part of town, I now see what she meant. It’s like a replica of an old western town with the saloon and the drug store and other types of shops. I think some of it is authentic since it says it was made in 1931 but it seems so updated that it’s hard to see the old West with all the souvenirs and prairie women mannequins in the display windows. I’ll stroll through tomorrow and take some pics. Right now, I’m sitting and having an angus steak with texas toast and waffle fries at the Red Rock Restaurant and will slumber at the Motel Welsh where owner, Wes, has given me a good deal because he stuck me in Room 2 which is pretty much a bed and a shower stall/toilet. On my way out of the office, he said, “thanks for the business.” You don’t hear many folks say that anymore…

Joke of the day: Q: What do you call cheese that isn’t yours? A: Nacho cheese.

No radio highlights today because I mostly listened to NPR. Learned that the lyrics writer for “Do Run Run” and “Going to the Chapel” died.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Minnesota Local Charm and South Dakota Burgers

Dropped in on the Coffee Hag in downtown Mankato. Cute little independent coffee shop run by women and enjoyed by many. When I took this photo of her, she asked what it was for and I simply said, "me. I'm on vacation and take photos of everywhere I go." She responded, "ahh, it's like paparazzi." This place reminded me of my favorite coffee place on Avenue A and 3rd Street in the East Village. Salvation Army couches, board games, wall of photos and good chai. I know Laura Ingalls shopped here but besides a cute little antique shop, there wasn’t all that much going on here. I almost went to lunch at this Italian restaurant that seemed to be the only place in town with cars out front but it ended up being dead inside, no characters to sit next to at the bar. So I got on the road instead. Had a large breakfast for free so my tummy was satisfied.

Next stop along Route 14 was New Ulm, Minnesota. Hadn’t heard of it before but when I got there and saw the “Downtown” arrow sign, I figured I’d take a look since Mankato wasn’t all that. I was immediately pleased because it was a little German town and it smelled of cheese. Apparently, there was a processing plant down by the river and it made me hungry but it was 2:45 and the restaurants were no longer serving lunch. Total bummer. This town reminded me a bit of Bariloche in Argentina, another German settlement.

New Ulm was a big industry town (AMPI was headquartered here, milk producer) but it also had the historic downtown Main Street that I liked. Parked the car and started taking photos of the German restaurants and such when all of a sudden, this man said, “Oh, did you recognize him, that’s why you were smiling?” Confused, I said, “No, I’m not from here,” unaware that he knew full well I wasn’t from there and this was his way of getting me to stop and talk. Three men sat outside this small independent bookstore sipping coffee at the one café table with chairs on the sidewalk. It was the picture of Golden Girls but with men and no cheesecake. They were adorable. I asked their names and offered mine. Bill and Al were both retired attorneys, mostly estates, trusts and such, but some divorces now and again. I never did get what Carol had done before retirement. Bill was the talker. Anything that came out of your mouth, he had a story that popped into his head that was sometimes only loosely related to the topic at hand. And if Carol was telling me about the sights to see in New Ulm (pronounced by Bill as “gnome”), and Bill interrupted him, he simply said, “wait til I finish!” with a ‘sheesh’ look on his face. You could tell these guys have known each other for a long time and later I learned that they meet up each day at the same time (around 2:00) to have coffee and chat. So sweet.

They asked me what I was doing in New Ulm, if I had family here, where I was staying. I explained that I had no clue about their little town and that I simply stopped because I always stopped when I thought there might be a fun little town to discover. They asked what I did back home and I talked about my work in the courts since they were lawyers. Al kept calling me the “most interesting person” they’ve ever met, and I said, “I’ll be sure to tell my friends back home that.” Each person that walked by while I was talking to them learned all about me. That I was from New York City and that I was traveling across country by myself with no itinerary. It was a hoot! Carol went and got me the tourist guide for New Ulm and even went and highlighted the pages that he felt were ‘must-sees.’ When I shared that I had never driven more than 6 hours straight before in my life, he gave me a tip to stay alert on the road, “Just drink a little Mountain Dew and you’ll perk right back up.” I smiled and thanked him.

They kept referring to Hermann the German as if I knew who that was so finally I asked. He was this famous German warrior that fought against the Romans in the year 9 A.D. and since many of the folks that settled here were from Germany, they built an enormous statue in town in his honor. It’s the 3rd largest copper statue in the U.S. And since this year was the 2000 year anniversary, it was understandable that they were all up in arms about it. They all had a lot of pride in New Ulm. It was nice.

We then got on the topic of New York and how quick paced it is in comparison to Minnesota. I agreed of course but explained that you can make it feel like a small town if you make the effort. I told them that when I lived in Manhattan, I used to walk crosstown to work and waved to my dry cleaner each morning, got coffee at the same diner on the corner and knew all the doorman on my route there. They liked that story. Just then, a couple walked by and of course they had to learn where I was from. Bill popped up to give them the news and the man said, “I used to be your paperboy” because he realized Bill didn’t recognize him. Bill asked what he was up to and the man said he was retired as well but he was only 49. He then proceeded to say that he sold his company recently for 65 million dollars. I was instantly turned off. How strange to just blurt that out in the second sentence you share with a group of people you only know as acquaintances. Later, when he left, Al relayed the conversation to me as if I hadn’t heard the figure and I said I thought that was uncouth. He agreed. Al said that he invented some cure for something using pig’s ears or some other part of the animal. So the man and his wife went off to play a round of golf or something. Whatevs. Bill wanted to escort me to Hermann with the fellas in tow, but I declined. I wanted to duck into this antique shop before it closed and wasn’t sure I was going to stick around. Al and Carol kept telling him to stop putting me on the spot. I loved their banter. I think I’m going to see if they’ll be my pen pal, along with Mike and Rod. I miss having pen pals and I’m not sure any of these fellas use the internet much. What’ll be interesting is to see if I can write to them with simply this address:

Bill, Al (retired attys) and Carol
Nicest guys in New Ulm
Drink coffee together at 2:00-ish each day
on and around N. Minnesota Street
New Ulm, MN 56073-1729

Next stop along the way was Brookings, South Dakota where I learned that there are only about 700,000 people living in this large state. “There are more cattle than people here I bet,” said a retired military man that I met at Nick’s Hamburger Shop on Main. He and his wife were enjoying a lovely evening outside listening to live music at his high school mate’s burger joint. Dick Fergen, who had also done quite a bit of traveling in his day, was the current owner of this 1929 burger establishment and it was obviously a favorite to many. It seemed like anyone who was out that night was here. I went inside to order and they asked, “how many?” The slogan is “Buy ‘em by the bag” because they are small little guys, similar in size to White Castle but cannot compare to taste and quality for sure. What was interesting is that they ask you what you want as “fixins” when you order. They put the pickles, ketchup and such on the burger themselves. When I got my bag, I realized that they weren’t even wrapped inside, just piled on top of one another with toothpicks holding them together. So cute.

So I ate with the biker couple (ex-military and former nurse) and got loads of helpful hints on seeing the Black Hills and Badlands out west. I really do step in it. These folks had traveled through 48 states on their bikes and were just the nicest people ever! She had been a nurse at Columbia Presbyterian for 3 plus years and liked NYC very much. I didn’t catch their names but the gentleman even went out to his bike to show me the map that I’ll get when I go to Wall Drug. They had just been in that area because Sturgis has this annual biker festival and they go each year. He said it is the largest one of its kind and a sight to see. There might even be some remnant bikers from the festival in those towns when I get there. FUN! So they wished me happy travels and I was back on the road to get to Mitchell where my former Newsweek colleague Alexandra told me there is a Corn Palace that is a must see.

Radio highlights: “Bad to the Bone,” Guns & Roses, Sheryl Crow, Eminem, Percy Sledge and my favorite, Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts.”

Amazing sunset on a lake toward Mitchell, SD

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Art Deco, Wisconsin Police, Iowan General Store, Minnesota Sunset

Woke up to a lovely day in Mt. Horeb. Gallivanted around town, checked out the two antique stores and bought the most fabulous floor lamp. I had to. It was a steal. And I usually say that when the owners don’t know what they have but these two ladies knew that this was an authentic 50s art deco lamp in pristine condition. Now let’s hope I can keep it that way for the next 3 weeks in the back seat of my car. The shade is similar in style to the one I have from my grandparents but I can’t just have one. The ladies were surprised that someone so young appreciated these things and I explained that I inherited a lot of my grandparent’s and aunt’s furniture and I cherish it. I then thought, who will cherish it after I’ve gone and said that out loud. This woman, in her 60s I assume, said, “You enjoy it and that’s all that matters. If I thought about that with my kids, I’d be sad all the time. Even if they donate it when you’re gone, your things will make someone like YOU that appreciates antiques extremely happy when they find it in that thrift store.” So true!

Leaving Wisconsin on the country roads, I continually faced the MPH dilemma and was still shocked that I hadn’t gotten nabbed. It’s just so easy to go fast when you can’t see anything other than a straight road up ahead. So sure enough, I’m about to slow down for a 45mph bit when a little town cropped up, and I see the lights in my rear view mirror. I was already slowing down so I just pulled over without making him tell me to. I got my license, registration and insurance card out immediately and rolled the window down. When the officer approached the car, I laughed and said, “Ya don’t have to ask my why you pulled me over. Sorry about that.” I think he appreciated that. He said he clocked me at 76mph, 21 over the limit. Told me he’d be right back since he has to run my plates and such to make sure I’m not wanted in 3 counties. I was pissed at myself but figured it was bound to happen considering how much I had already gotten away with. He returned to my car and handed back all my documents and said, “In Wisconsin, this would cost you about $280 but I’m going to give you a warning. You just passing through?” I said yes and that I would be more careful and thanked him. WOW! Unreal. This would never have happened in New York. Even with a retired cop for a dad. And it worked. I have been slower on the road. But it’s weird because some states have a 70mph limit and others 55 so it’s hard to keep it straight. I didn’t say THIS to him of course. Ignorance is not an excuse to a police officer.

Soon after that, the craziest thing happened (maybe it was punishment for speeding). I was going the speed limit (learned my lesson) so this minivan behind me wanted to pass and it was a straight road, but a little dippy here and there. You know that type of road where you can see that shimmery black line where the road is about to dip down. So they started passing me and right as the road reached its slight peak, there was fresh road kill to the left of the dotted yellow line and the passing car didn’t see it. So they ran right over it as they passed me and it splattered all over the driver’s side of the car. I almost hurled. It reminded me of the time I hit that buck back in high school. I could already smell the stench. But I think that was psychological considering the windows were closed. And thank goodness the windows were closed. Can you imagine how offensive that would have been? As if it wasn’t already going to be nasty. So they pulled over and so did I and the man was just horrified. He apologized over and over again and I said it was okay. It’s not like he did it on purpose. He asked me if I knew what it was as if we’d have to notify its parents or something. His wife thought it might have been a possum. I’m not even sure what a possum looks like so I just nodded and said, “Yea, maybe?” So the man didn’t know what to do but handed me $20 for a car wash but he wasn’t from the area and didn’t know where the next car wash was. I said it was fine and appreciated his offer. Luckily, there was a car wash down the road and I got the “super wash” option. I mean, after all, there wasn’t a “wipe the possum off your hood” option. And no, I didn’t just go into the car wash like nothing was hanging off my tires and such. I explained what happened and I swear, it was as if they get this every week. Grrrroooosssss!

In Iowa, I strolled through both Marquette and McGregor, both incredibly cute spots. An old-fashioned diner in town with large black and white checkered floor and red stools at the counter. Adorable! Both resemble the type of towns in westerns where the train rolls through town through the mountain and folks nod and take their hats off when they walk by. It was so cute. And in McGregor, the buildings still look like Jesse James is going to come and rob the bank. There’s even a Savings & Loan like in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

So glad Maura’s friend recommended this town. The sad thing in Marquette was that the old schoolhouse was now an antique store. Ya gotta wonder where the kids learn? There didn’t seem to be another school nearby. It brought to mind the old grandparent mantra, “I had to walk 3 miles in the snow BAREFOOT to get to school.” I wonder if that’s the case now for some kids.

The real General Store in Marquette was just a riot. Chaotic organization is the best way to describe it. I swear the woman who ran the place must know where every nut and bolt is but walking down the “aisles” if you can even call them that was an adventure. You could buy everything from shoelaces to Christmas ornaments to doorknobs and scrap wood. So cool.

The one disturbing thing I overheard that day was in the antique mall in McGregor. These two older women were discussing the health care reform issue. One of them said about Obama, “He’s just not working for our people.” I guess I should be surprised that it’s taken this long (almost a week) before I heard such a comment but luckily she stopped there. I felt as if I would have said something if she continued. Not in an abrasive way but to see what she really feels. I don’t know…

Between McGregor and Mankato, I stopped in Waseca, Minnesota and saw the most amazing sunset ever! On the lake and all. The most beautiful colors and clouds. Just breathtaking. All that emotion made me hungry and I had to stop to eat. Found a place called Old Country Buffet. One thing I have noticed about these small town family restaurants is that folks aren’t bothered by having their conversations heard by others. This one table had two couples, one older, one in their late teens or early 20s, with a baby in a carseat. The young husband/father was lamenting about how they don’t have friends coming around anymore. Since the baby, none of their friends call or stop by for a beer or to watch the game. It was so bittersweet. I felt so bad for them. They were so young and so sad already. The other family in earshot of me was this couple in their 30s with an 8-year old son who was having behavioral issues at school already. School started Wednesday for some. So this mom was reprimanding him loudly for the entire restaurant to hear. I guess this just shocked me because when we were kids, folks used to come up to my parents and praise them for how well behaved we were in the restaurant. Granted, this was thanks to my father beating the hell out of me once when I was 3 when I acted out in Florida restaurant while on vacation. My sister Denise never let me live that down.

Some random observations: (1) Llamas roadside for sale in Wisconsin. (2) Amish aren’t just in Lancaster. They’re in Minnesota too. (3) Learned that executed prisoners in China are involuntarily having their organs harvested and the doctors (or government) are saying it’s the least they can do for doing something wrong, (4) Laura Ingalls shopped in Mankato, MN on Little House on the Prairie (thanks Erin).

Radio highlights: Steve Miller Band, Aerosmith, Blondie.

Recession, Lingerie Football and Mortgage Brokers, Oh My!

Woke up in another time zone. Wish I had realized that before going to bed because it would have made me feel better to know I was getting an extra hour of sleep. Little did I know that I would need comforting after what I was about to see.

If I though I knew what the recession in the United States looked like back home because friends or family have been laid off or times have been tight, Gary, Indiana was a huge eye-opener for me. This place needs some serious help and I surely hope it gets it because otherwise, it may just become a ghost town. Some parts are already on their way to that classification. I felt so bad taking photos around town but initially I just wanted to shoot the amazing signage all around but once I got into the inner city, it was just depressing. Broadway, the main drag, which you can imagine being a bustling street back in the day, with all its shops, restaurants, etc., was slowly creeping along with a few people on the sidewalks maybe. Mostly, it seemed that they were either going into the housing authority office or the job center honestly. But I finally found the people of color, that’s for sure. In the first part of town (toward Portage), I went to a bistro that was listed on Yelp and it was all white. I had the crab cakes. They were alright, nothing to write home about.

But I saw this book next to my table about the best Indiana restaurants and they were in it. The only other Gary restaurant was on W 11th Street. So I asked my waitress where this was and she said she thought it had closed down but really I just wanted to know where the other “downtown” was since this little street couldn’t be it. She started telling me but then interrupted herself and said, “it really isn’t very nice.” I figured I’d be the judge of that, just tell me where the damn area is. Even on her street, there were a lot of closed stores. Miller’s Pharmacy seemed to be a family owned drug store that had been shut down for a while now from the likes of the overgrown shrubs all around. What’s Poppin, the gourmet popcorn shoppe seemed to survive for some unknown reason? But Lake Street didn’t seem to be all too “nice” either. I’m sure when the Obama Shop down the road was open, there was more activity and then there was the Michael Jackson memorabilia shop opposite that. And the gas station sold adult DVDs for $4.99 and I’m sure they were getting business considering they made the special sign and all.

So I drove down to the “other downtown” and found a plethora of cool signs but really felt terrible for all of these people. There were makeshift tag sales on the sidewalk and it looked like folks were just selling everything and anything they still owned. Some houses’ porches had moving boxes piled up as if they had just been foreclosed on and had to get out quick. Many entire streets were boarded up or had homes with windows broken. There wasn’t even graffiti on the boarded up buildings which made me think kids couldn’t even afford spray paint to have their fun. I couldn’t even find a postcard anywhere to send another indication to my niece and nephew as to where I was on my trip so far. Found the post office though and asked to buy two books of postcard stamps. The clerk could only find one. She looked and looked but finally, I said one was enough. The waitress back in the good part of town had said that the city was trying to develop down here in the next couple of years but I can’t imagine how a few years will turn this all around. I do hope so. Maybe Jackson's estate can help his hometown because they surely have not forgotten him.

Another thing I noticed were a lot of older men riding bikes around. Not your typical sight in larger cities that actually have public transportation. But I fear it’s out of necessity. Let’s hope their politicians are competent because they aren’t going to be able to rely on the federal government to get them out of this one. After all, on the radio leaving Gary, the local Chicago DJ was saying how experts were reporting upward mobility in the economy and wanted listeners to call in to express their feelings on that notion. I was so tempted to call and tell them they were crazy because I had just left Gary, Indiana and there was no relief coming for those folks for a long time. Stimulus was a word they didn’t understand. And they sure as hell would have laughed at the “experts” saying that folks are now spending more.

So on my way through Chicago, I was reminded of my 7 months spent flying to this town from NYC to stay in Schaumburg, Illinois. Ick. Worked on Motorola’s e-business site at their compound there. Not fun. But didn’t recall lingerie football. Is this new or unique to Chicago? Do tell readers. And Hooters is everywhere too around these parts. But what I did think was how I wished I hadn’t been attached when I had that job back in 1997 because I could have been spending each weekend flying to a different state on my IBM miles and exploring the country back then instead of going back home to Queens each weekend and getting right back on the airplane Monday morning. Oh well, no regrets.

Right as I reached Wisconsin, my “At Oil Temp” light went on (blinking) and it freaked me out. I got off at the rest area immediately since I didn’t know what that meant. I pulled over into a gas station in case I needed help and immediately called the only person I knew who knew anything about cars, my brother-in-law. It went right to voicemail so I left a welcome home message since they just got back from vacation yesterday. No need to worry them since I knew it would be fine. I had a full workup on my car before heading out on this adventure. Next, I went through my cellphone address book to see who else I might call to reassure me and realized that very few of my guy friends knew much at all about cars. Correct me if I’m wrong fellas and no offense to the girls, but… But then it struck me, Row knows all. So I called him and Suger and I spoke for a bit, she put in her two cents and then Row got on and gave me the skinny. Granted, I had already read in the manual that this didn’t even require stopping the car. And if the engine was just running when it happened, simply don’t go up steep grades or be in stop and go traffic. So I took Row’s advice and checked my levels. Opened the hood, took out my towel to wipe the stick and sure enough, a man came over to help me. I knew what I was doing but why not let him get dirty instead. All was fine. I’m actually meticulous about maintaining my car and read the whole manual when I first bought it so I’d be informed in these situations. Back on the road, the light never came on again. Phew!

Spent the ride listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR. Mike Judge was on talking about King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead and his new film “Extract.” Funny stuff. Especially since his experiences with folks in rural America were what started him writing King of the Hill. The situations were ones I felt I was experiencing or overhearing at diners and drive-ins myself now. Cool stuff. Will have to check that movie out when I’m home or in the next drive-in I come across.

So I arrived in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin at around 6:00 p.m. and thought, “Dave, what were you thinking recommending this place to me? I wanted old small town with no Starbucks and character coming out of the seams.” Then I realized that I had to drive a few miles down the road to hit the old downtown bit. Phew! Sorry I doubted you Dave. My first stop was at the Karakahl Inn or Motel. Who knows what they call themselves. The place should be condemned today and then used in a horror film. It was scary shit and they were seriously charging $50+ for a night there. Check out the photo. It doesn’t even show how spooky this place was. Luckily, down the road some, I found the Village Inn, a cute Catskill-esque strip motel that had those awesome multi-colored metal chairs out front of each room. I hearted it immediately. Went into the office and they even had WiFi. Now I’m convinced that everyone does. Paid for the night, got my troll information and Norwegian town guide and was on my way to dinner. Adorable town. Can’t wait to start walking around today. I think I saw 3 antique stores and plenty of other cute shops to pop into. So last night, I got a Wisconsin cheddar burger at Bistro 101 and headed down the road to the Firehouse for my first beer with the locals. And thank goodness I did! What a trip! Sat down next to Pat, an excavator from Madison who was on his way home from his family’s farm in Iowa. Nice guy. I asked him if he knew how much pool was and he said he thinks 75 cents or a dollar. Then Jen, the waitress outed him as a regular who definitely knew how much pool costs. I asked if he’d be my partner if the couple playing now wanted to play us. He agreed. The couple was Shauna and “her man.” That’s how she referred to him to others. He seemed a bit younger. She was 38, Class of ’89.

Apparently Pat was really good at pool because Jen was shocked each time we lost. But that was my fault. He was really good but I kept messing up. Brandon, I needed you by my side. So we lost 3 times and Pat really needed to end on a good note so I said I could stay for one more and we won (thank goodness). But before that game was over, the best thing ever happened. Shauna opened up. This song came on that she had put into the jukebox called, “In Spite of Ourselves” by John Prine. She kept saying, “it’s a love song, just listen to the lyrics. This is going to be my wedding song. Granny will be allllll ‘wha?’ but I’ll just shrug like I have no idea what they’re sayin’.”

Here are the lyrics for you so you can appreciate what I was listening to as she swayed back and forth dancing to her future nuptials.

She don't like her eggs all runny
She thinks crossin' her legs is funny
She looks down her nose at money
She gets it on like the Easter Bunny
She's my baby I'm her honey
I'm never gonna let her go

He ain't got laid in a month of Sundays
I caught him once and he was sniffin' my undies
He ain't too sharp but he gets things done
Drinks his beer like it's oxygen
He's my baby
And I'm his honey
Never gonna let him go

In spite of ourselves
We'll end up a'sittin' on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we're the big door prize
We're gonna spite our noses
Right off of our faces
There won't be nothin' but big old hearts
Dancin' in our eyes.

She thinks all my jokes are corny
Convict movies make her horny
She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs
Swears like a sailor when shaves her legs
She takes a lickin'
And keeps on tickin'
I'm never gonna let her go.

He's got more balls than a big brass monkey
He's a wacked out werido and a lovebug junkie
Sly as a fox and crazy as a loon
Payday comes and he's howlin' at the moon
He's my baby I don't mean maybe
Never gonna let him go

In spite of ourselves
We'll end up a'sittin' on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we're the big door prize
We're gonna spite our noses
Right off of our faces
There won't be nothin' but big old hearts
Dancin' in our eyes.
There won't be nothin' but big old hearts
Dancin' in our eyes.

(spoken) In spite of ourselves

So Shauna used to bartend at The Firehouse for 5 yrs. She had also been a horse trainer and a roofer before her current job as a senior mortgage broker at a local bank. She had even met my partner Pat before but she had no recollection. Her man wore those massive washer-looking things in his ears to expand the lobes and a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. He was the quieter of the two. In order to bond with him, I told a little white lie. I said I used to paint that design (his T-shirt) on the backs of jean jackets back in high school. I think Steve actually did this for real but I was channeling him for now. He immediately high fived me and we were BFFs. That’s how I learned when Shauna graduated because she asked me how old I was.

She seemed to know a lot of the folks walking in and kept lifting up her shirt to show them her new tattoo. I had already seen quite a few even though she had jeans and a T-shirt on but this one was clearly hidden. To her surprise, “this one hurt like a mutha fucker. Granted, I was hungover from my birthday the night before but I’ve never had it hurt this much before.” She said that she woke up the next day in pain, but not from the tattoo, from clenching and being so tense throughout the 4 hours it took to do the damn thing. “It was like how you feel after a full day of exercise and I don’t exercise.” Now this was a girl I could relate to. I’ve totally woken up after some odd occurrence like that and felt like I was in a gym for a day and meanwhile I hadn’t done a lick of exercise. So I’m nodding telling her how I hate exercise too. And she says, “the only time I run is when someone’s chasing me.”

So she goes on about the flabbiness under her arms and how she needs to get rid of that and her bagel. Her bagel is the space around her belly button that she shows us that when you squish it together, it totally DOES look like a bagel. So she joined a gym again, even though years ago, she had done the same and only went 3 times in a year and was paying $60/month. Again, I sympathized. She laughed because she had won a year’s worth of golf at her job for being selected for the President’s Club but she said, “what am I going to do with a full year’s worth of golf when all I would do is ride around on that cart drinking vodka.” So she gave the pass to a friend.

She still couldn’t get over the fact that when she applied for this job, they asked if she had any experience and she said, “if bartending, training horses and roofing is experience, SURE!” She had to take the state test and did very well. “I guess I still had some brain cells left over because I rocked the test.” Meanwhile, she didn’t even know what a mortgage was. She said she had grown up on welfare mostly and was now a renter. But she figured it out and the real reason she was doing so well was that all the customers liked her spunkiness. She never even sat down when she had customers in her office. She paced and talked with her hands a lot the whole time. She said it “put people at ease. Even though I was the only tattooed freak in the office, I’m doing really well there.”

I seriously adored Shauna. She was my kind of girl. Talked a lot. Shared too much and sang Journey out loud when it came on the jukebox. Apparently, I wouldn’t have to nudge folks to do this with me.

Radio highlights from yesterday: “Jukebox Hero,” Whitney Houston, Tom Petty, The Cure, the Go Gos, Peter Frampton, Van Morrison, Van Halen (with David Lee Roth) and Lenny Kravitz.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mike, the nicest guy in Indiana

Radio highlights from yesterday: Marvin Gaye, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Come on Eileen,” and ZZ Top. Being a Hot 97 gal myself, this whole 80s and rock flashback has been very interesting for me, let alone having the radio become my new BFF. As I sang along loudly to each tune, and mind you, I now talk to myself frequently in the car, not in front of folks (yet), I remembered how bad I always was at knowing the words to songs back when I was in middle and high school. I just wasn’t disciplined enough to sit there with the radio and write down the lyrics or listen to an LP or cassette over and over again to make sure I had it right. I took the lazy way out sometimes if it really meant that much to me and bought the sheet music at the record store in the mall. Young people nowadays don’t even know this process because they can Google the lyrics to just about anything probably but back in the day, you had to buy them or at least stand there in the record store long enough with a sheet of paper copying them down without the salesperson noticing. I wonder if my mom kept those in the piano bench for us.

So as I left Ohio, I not only heard an advertisement on the radio for a restaurant that said if you spent over a certain amount of money, they’d donate 10% back to your church, but then I saw this poor guy in a van get pulled over by not one, but four state police cruisers on the highway. It was unreal. Do they always do this when there’s a call in about a rogue van on the interstate? I know. I have no clue what the issue was but it seemed excessive for one man and a van. Then down the road a ways, I saw it again. Maybe they just don’t have that much excitement going on that they jump on the chance to arrest someone in numbers. I do hope it wasn’t for speeding because I should have been hauled off to jail a long time ago. AND, what’s infuriating about these small roads connected little towns is that you’ll be on a 55mph bit, then all of a sudden, it’s 35, then 45, then back to 55, all within 2 minutes time. UGH!

So once I hit Indiana (the welcome sign alerted me, otherwise I would have never known since there’s just more corn everywhere), I happened upon this adorable little town called Decatur. I was on my way to Peru but had to stop when I saw how cool some of the buildings were and that there seemed to be some activity on the streets. I stopped in to this antique store on the main street and had a ball. My first find was this vintage hat that I will find some way to wear to the wedding I am going to at the end of September. It’s just lovely and in pretty good shape, not perfect, but neither am I. And then I found an Italian cowboy hat and it was only $10 and it came in a NYC milliner box called Dobbs. So cool. Not sure what I will do with it but it was in perfect shape (the hat, not the box). I then moseyed around the corner and saw Hitler’s image framed on a bureau next to an old radio and lamp. I thought, “that’s odd, it looks like he’s being featured as someone important in a good way.” Let’s hope not because the two gals running the shoppe were very nice and I can’t imagine why he had this kind of prominence in the store but there it was. I continued to shop and found many goodies for friends. Since I bought so much, one of the ladies helped me out to my car with it and immediately said surprised, “You’re from New York?” She was stunned that I was traveling alone with no itinerary but at the same time thought it was super cool. I assured her I would be safe and was on my way.

Before heading to lunch, I wanted to take a few shots of the amazing signage in this town. Some very funny and some so retro you hoped it would never get replaced with modern signs or neon godforbid. So in wandering around town shooting signs, I came across this Window Store, aptly named, but it took me a few seconds to realize why it was so strange looking. There were NO windows on the Window Store. Not one! Just solid entry doors. Hilarious!

Down the road a bit before I hit Decatur, I had seen a billboard on US-24 for a placed called West End Restaurant and it said it was 3 miles ahead just before the railroad tracks. Looked like the kind of place I’d like to try. So I went in that direction and sure enough, it was the easiest thing to locate right before the tracks (especially since a very long freight train was making its way thru town at the moment). I parked my car out back and walked in to find that it wasn’t all too busy but then again, it was a little later in the day for lunch. There was an older gentleman sitting at the counter so I decided to sit next to him, one stool separating us. I said hello and then took a look at the menu. Ordered a fish sandwich and lemonade and looked around a bit.

One of the fellas that worked there was having an exchange with my neighbor about what he likes to be called now. Apparently, he used to work for him years ago and used to go by Barry. Mike was the former owner of Decatur Packaging and had since retired. And Barry, or whatever he goes by now, used to work there as a young man. I found out what type of business he was in when he struck up the conversation about having employed this kid. And he told me all about this big Vegas convention show that he landed and how it was huge for his company to get bragging rights to such a big account. It had to do with packaging for drinks like Manhattans and martinis and such. I didn’t quite understand fully but I was enjoying listening to him talk about his work. Again, I had met someone who truly loved their job. I asked him where the company had been and whether someone was still running it. He started giving me directions and when I looked extremely lost, he said, “Oh, are you not from here?” Told him I was from New York City and he said, “I’ve been there a few times. Great place. My aunt owns a hospice for travelers there and back in my sophomore year of college, me and my buddies went to Larchmont and went out to a bar drinking and got pulled over by this Irish cop. We were honest that we had had a few and he started opening his ticket pad. But once he saw my Notre Dame emblem on my jacket, he flipped the cover and asked if I went there.” Needless to say, the Fighting Irish got them out of a ticket and the cop apparently followed them home to make sure they’d be safe. Gotta love those Irish cops! So I told him my father was one of those but not with the accent since while he was doing the part of the cop in his story, he put on a brogue. He asked what my last name was and then said, “Yup, that’s Irish alright.” Said it was a lovely country. He then proceeded to tell me all about his travels far and wide. He had also been to London and had spent some time in Germany (Heidelberg specifically where he had his first German girlfriend), Egypt (this came up when I told him that I was hoping to make it as far as Mt. Rushmore but hoped seeing the sculpture wouldn’t be a letdown the way the Sphinx and pyramids were). He had also been to Rome and apparently did some swimming. I guess he didn’t have trunks of his own so he had to borrow or buy some (he spoke very softly so I didn’t always make out what he was saying precisely but this part I didn’t miss). “You know they wear those bikinis there for me, when in Rome, ya know, so I put those on and if they had been one size smaller, you would have had two bottle caps and a cork.” Took me a second and then I just started laughing hysterically. This guy was hilarious! When in Rome…

Mike then asked me if the Golden Theatre was still around in NYC. Because back in the day, he had gone there to see Victor Borge, the famous Danish pianist. “He hardly ever got to playing the piano because he was always cracking jokes.” He had fond memories of this trip. I wanted to ask whether his wife that he had mentioned earlier was still around but I realized that I didn’t even ask that of Rod the previous day. I think I didn’t want to have to say “I’m sorry” if they were deceased. I hope not. But Mike did say that he married in his late 30s.

So we talked a bit about my trip and how unplanned it was but that I hoped to make it to Keystone, South Dakota. He even knew the name of the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore and said, “Can you imagine getting it so precise, a nose, being up that close?” I wholeheartedly agreed. I think that is why I find this stuff fascinating. I wish I had been a lot less critical in Giza. Of course those sights are incredible but I fear that our constant viewing of things in magazines and on TV almost make the experience of being right there in front of it a little less stunning. It’s a shame. I will try not to imagine it until I get there to see it firsthand.

So just like that, Mike jumped up, after his last cigarette and cup of joe (you can apparently smoke in Indiana restaurants), and bid me farewell. He went to the register to settle his tab and on the way out, past my stool, brushed my shoulder and said ‘safe travels.’ It was so utterly sweet. What a kind man. I was done with my sandwich and ready to get back on the road myself so I put my money on the check and the nice waitress said, “Mike took care of it.” The owner came over and said, “Mike’s a really intelligent guy,” and I responded, “I know. He just told me all about his business and his traveling around the world. I’m so glad he spoke to me. Such a doll.” And he was. I think I’ll send him a postcard from Mt. Rushmore when I get there. I’ll send it c/o The West End Restaurant, Decatur, Indiana.

Stopped in Markle, Indiana on my way to Peru. They had a smaller, but still substantial antique mall and it was great. Lots of old Raggedy Ann dolls, Mork & Mindy and Laverne & Shirley board games. Never knew those existed. Wonder what you do in the game? Sew L’s on sweaters? Found some Pickup Stix though and I heart those. Also, apparently, you can’t swing a dead cat in the Midwest without hitting a root beer drive-in. They are everywhere! And here I thought it was somethin’ special that I happened upon one in Pennsylvania. Sheesh.

Along the way, I also saw a crucifix on the top of a barn and couldn’t help but laugh. Not at the crucifix, but at the concept of making sure it’s visible in case God was looking down one day and chose to do something destructive to only the bad people of America. This way, he’d see the cross and realize he should spare this Christian family. Good placement folks. I also saw a sign for the Dan Quayle Museum. That threw me for a loop. What the hell is that?! Then I realized that he was born in Indiana. I guess I had tried my darnedest to put that time period behind me. Needless to say, I didn’t stop in for a gander. At that point in the road, there was a detour because a bridge was out so I luckily got to pass by “The Boondocks,” a local watering hole. I had to take a photo of their self-proclaimed small town pub sign but as I did, this man had just arrived on his Harley and didn’t quite like this New Yorker finding humor in it. He scowled my way with his long, shiny, gray Farrah Fawcett (RIP) locks blowing in the wind. I ignored and carried on. You can’t have a name like that and not expect tourists to take notice. Sheesh. Down the road a bit more, I stopped for a snack at Clare Lake, just this public access “beach” with lots and lots of crickets in the marshy bits. It was very pleasant and a nice relaxing spot to take a rest from driving. It was near Huntington, Indiana.

So Peru, Indiana is a quaint little town. The only place to stay in town (from what I could see driving down Main Street east to west, was this motel with scary truckers drinking beers very quickly on the second floor banister. So I pretty much decided then that I would grab a bite to eat at the Mandarin Buffet (free WiFi) and head up north a bit closer to Gary, Indiana (like the son). I spent a bit of time though going around Peru, shooting various things like yet another drive-in joint, select saloons, the Peru Tribune, the Circus Hall of Fame, some cows. Overall, my impression: Looks like the kind of place you want to walk down Main Street and hold hands for the first time with the girl you’re smitten with. :-)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Me? Are you talking to me?

So I ended up being soooo over the whole 11:00 a.m. check out time and had to get some work done and rest a bit, so I stayed in Ohio for another night and I’m so glad I did. As you can see below, lunch was at Bob Evans and it was lovely. After many hours of writing, I needed to nourish myself again and figured it was easy to just walk over there and eat dinner. I’m so over trying to find authentic, independent eateries in these towns. It’s just too much work. I have found some by chance but it’s not high priority anymore. It would take a lot of research and considering this trip only started being thought of about a month ago, I didn't exactly have the time to plan or the desire to. So I ordered a BBQ fried chicken tortilla chip corn on the cob salad. Yup, all of that was in there. And lettuce. It was dead this time because it was 8:30 p.m. and folks were probably getting ready for bed. But not two gentlemen who were nice enough to strike up conversations with me. The first simply saw me with my laptop and said, “what’s that you got there?” and asked if I was doing my homework. He was very cute. Asked who made it. I said Apple and he nodded with pursed lips. Said good night and was on his way. Then another gentleman walked in and sat at the counter. The adorable waitress asked if he wanted his “regular” and he nodded as she recounted each part of his order. The other cutie patootie behind the counter confirmed that he is now a full-fledged regular if she can recall all of that. His name was Rod and when he saw me on the computer, he too, asked if I was doing my homework. I said, “work but not HOME work since I am pretty far from home.”

This exchange made me realize that this was the first person that started a genuine conversation with me since I left Saugerties. Sure I had spoken to folks but no one actually initiated anything. So he asked where I was from, what I did for work and why I was in Ohio. He was very sweet. Every few minutes or so, he’d stop and say, “Sorry if I’m buggin’ ya.” I kept reassuring him that this was the most I had spoken to someone in days and it was a welcomed change. And I think that these are the only places where folks will talk to me because they are damn friendly, they're relaxed and this IS where most folks go when there is a chain option. Not sure why but it's the truth.

He asked if I would critique his company’s website since I had the laptop and all and I agreed. Luckily, it was very nice and organized. He said a French guy did it and he liked the guy. Rod explained a little about his furniture business and said that it was housed in one of the oldest barns in the state and it was made of brick, not wood. He told me a little about the area and said that a few weeks back, the GM Metal Fabrication Division down the road closed so a lot of people around these parts would be out of a job. Lots of depression type feelings going on around here. I said that I had been to Bucyrus and got that feeling there. Lots of stores closed down and little going on other than the bratwurst festival. Rod had lived near Mansfield his entire life. Had been a golf pro for some years and went to college a few hours away but ultimately lived in the area his whole life.

I explained that I was heading out tomorrow to go to Indiana for the next leg of my trip and he asked if I’d like to see his store before I went to the movie I had scheduled for the evening. I said yes, took a photo of his license plate without him knowing (just in case), and followed his car to the Furniture Barn. It was incredible! Took lots of pictures, learned a lot of history and saw amazing craftsmanship. He showed me the only known pool stick holder with 24 (?) locks for back when players would leave their stick at the bar but lock it up. He now found an ingenious way of making his own using lipstick. Sorry Rod, I hope I'm not giving away trade secrets but I love when I meet folks who absolutely LOVE their work and have a passion for sharing it with others. He is a collector of many things antique and country (slot machines, horseshoes and copper bins) and I had a great time seeing it all. Little did he know that he came across the one person in that restaurant that WOULD truly appreciate all the antiques and stories behind the barn's history. They even made moonshine in a small house out front but it's no longer there.

So if you are ever in Ohio and are in the market for some high quality furniture, drop by. Here's his website: And be sure to tell him Elizabeth sent you. Then again, I'm not sure I ever told him my name after all that chatting. Funny, eh? Then again, I'm sure he doesn't run into too many NYC girls with laptops at Bob Evans so just mention that instead. Apparently, folks fly in on helicopters to shop there! I saw the pictures.

He took a photo of me in this enormous chair that has travelled to many places as a fun prop. And on my way out, gave me a yard stick with the company’s info on it. So sweet. I couldn’t help but ask as I saw his vintage slot machine collection whether he had children that would inherit this all or maybe even continue the business. He has a son and daughter but didn't think they'd be interested to continue the business. Understandable but sad nonetheless. Anyway, it was a pleasure to meet him and I was so glad he spoke to me. I told him this as I shook his hand and headed out to make my movie.

Sure enough, I got "lost" and once I got to the theatre, I was at the wrong one. So instead, I doubled back and went back to his shop because as I was leaving the driveway, I noticed an active drive-in theatre across the street. I would have bailed on the Cineplex if I hadn’t already purchased my ticket on the internet (only $2.50). But whatever, it was a good twist of fate. I went to see the same movie (“Funny People”) at an old-fashioned drive-in theatre across from the oldest barn in Ohio. I am just steppin’ in it left and right. First the drive-in root beer place, now this. So the girl at the ticket booth at Springmill Drive-In Theatre told me to tune in to 91.9 FM and just pull up to Screen 2. That’s right. This drive-in had not one, but two screens. Never heard of that before. It was awesome. I sat my Subaru between two pickup trucks that had young folks making out on blankets in the flat beds. How cool is that! Now I’m back home at the Motel 6 watching some Comedy Central. Good times, good times.

Another thing I realized today is that this is my vacation. I didn’t plan it and although I had these crazy ideas when I set out for this adventure, it doesn’t matter one bit if none of those things comes to pass. What I was thinking when I devised this plan to have an on-the-road tag sale, I don’t know. I would have to have major cojones to pull something like that off. Major! Also, the idea of only going to small towns and finding a place to stay. Not as doable as it sounds in the little movie I’ve made up in my silly head. This is so like me though. Since I was a young girl making up stories about passers-by in the mall while my mother and sisters shopped, I’ve always thought my ideas could become reality. Even when they involve middle America, a hatchback and an umbrella to keep the sun away. But I’m glad I never stop making up these insane scenarios. It’s still fun to dream that life can be like the movies.

By the way, the real reason I stayed another night here is that the light in here makes me look fabulous. You girls know what I’m talking about. When you look in the mirror, even without makeup on and start unscrewing light bulbs to see what brand they are because you’ve never looked better! That is this room! I look tan, have definition in my face in all the right places, and don’t even need to put eyeliner on. Oh, and Matthea and May, I totally did my EO-TaiChi today outside of Room 107. Granted, no one was around to watch, but I did it. I needed to after all the lying in bed with my laptop on my legs. They needed some stretchin’.

So if I can get my ass to bed now, I am going to try and wake up at a reasonable hour to get on the road and head to Peru, Indiana.

Wireless everywhere

I'll tell ya, I know in small towns, there probably isn't wireless internet for free everywhere, but in small-ish towns, there is. Not only does my Motel 6 have it but then I just ducked out with laptop in hand (since I'm working along the way), and Bob Evans (which, by the way, is sort of like Friendly's I guess), has it too. You just have to agree to their policies (like not going to inappropriate websites and promising that you will always shop at Wal-Mart when faced with options of other department stores). I hit ACCEPT of course.

So I ordered the "Knife and Fork Homemade Meatloaf Sandwich" and it's divine. And free refills on the Arnold Palmers. Those are half ice tea, half lemonade drinks. Yippee! You don't even have to ask for a refill. They just bring it to you when you start getting near the bottom. And when you leave, they ask you if you want a free refill to go? Where the heck am I?

And next to me at the counter sits the nicest little family. Mom, Dad and little 3 yr old girl. She's drawing pictures for them and they're both agreeing that it's the best house picture they've EVER seen. So cute. Truly happy. So no joke, it's almost 1 p.m. and this place is hopping! There's a line out the door for seats but thanks to me being a loner, I'm at the counter with my MacBook updating the ol' blog. Just realized, (edit) it's Sunday and these folks go to church in the morning and come here afterwards apparently. The sea foam skirt suit and broach on this woman just tipped me off.

I have to point out that the only employee here of color is the bus boy (man). He's about a 65-year old African American man and just brought in pounds and pounds of ice for the wait staff and no one even looked at him. It's just something that keeps cropping up for me. The communities outside of the cities are mostly white and the employees that are customer-facing are white too. That BBQ guy and his staff at the fair yesterday were practically the only black people at the fair. And when I looked up his website, Lil J's BBQ, he's from Columbus, Ohio, which apparently has a large black population. I know I shouldn't be so surprised by this but I still am. I did, however, see an interracial couple at the fair. And an Asian couple with kids. So I guess slowly but surely. But they were all getting looks.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Strippers, Guns and Bratwurst

So downtown Clarion wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Main Street was dead and apparently, girls just don’t dress like me there because I stood out like a sore thumb. And I was just wearing a tunic. Oh my gosh! So instead of going to a pub and grill, I snuck into Vinny’s Pizza to get a slice to go and bring it back to my motel room. As I waited for my slice to be warmed up, I got to “meet” the barmaid from the next door, Vinny’s Bar. She wore a sexy short red dress (stripper-ish), high heels and had much enhancement in the chest area. Needless to say, I have to get over the whole townie bar thing and venture inside next time. She was something else. I wish I could have shot her. Would’ve been a great photo.

Came home to that stupid Meryl Streep ABBA movie. How did that get made? Woke up to a continental breakfast that included waffles! Isn’t that nuts? Usually, it’s bagels and cereal and coffee. But there were fresh waffles with syrup for free (miss you Shawn). Checked out and went into town to see the place in the daylight. It was still quaint and scattered with folks going for breakfast at the country kitchen. I bought some postcards, got stamps at the post office (no line) and visited the local Goodwill where I found this great platter with the Pennsylvania Game Commission on it. Thought that was for casino regulation or something but on my way back from the dude ranch up river, I learned that it’s like deer and other targets. I stopped along the road because I saw this strange setup with men and guns. Apparently, they were shooting “300s.” That’s the name of the type of rifle they had. It was super loud. I had to hold my ears and it still hurt. But they shot at their targets and probably thought that I was making fun of it all but I do know that deer mate like mad and cause some trouble and unfortunately need to be shot. Right? That’s what the boys in my high school told me when I hit a buck with 10 points with my little Toyota Corolla. Population control. Whatevs. So I met these boys with guns and it was fun.

On the radio driving around town, I couldn’t help but notice again how awesome the songlist was. I know Doug, it’s evil Clear Channel. But it’s sooooo nostalgic. Air Supply, Tom Jones, Billy Joel, “She’s a brick house.” There is also a lot of glam band rock on the airwaves. Aren’t those mostly men in robes with makeup on? And that surprises me considering most of the people around here have bumper stickers that say “Marriage: YES! One man. One woman.” I even got into the car once and that song “I lick ya boom boom down” was playing. Not sure what it’s called but I know you know the one I’m talking about. As “Piano Man” played, it brought back so many memories of high school and going up to Lake George with Amy, Casey and Mary E. We used to tear it up in that town and I had to remember how easy that was to do. Now I’m legal, I have to venture into a bar fer gosh sakes. And maybe they’ll have a jukebox and I can get everyone to sing to a Billy Joel tune.

Or…. This DJ had just finished playing “Flashdance” by Irene Cara and made a mistake saying that there was a remake of that film out now. He meant “Fame.” Duh! How could you mess that up! But then Flashdance came to mind and I thought, I’m going to go thru some steel towns. Why can’t that happen to me? Meet some hot dude and look very cool about town in my tank and worn-in jeans. Oh wait, she was also a stripper at night, right? Scratch that. Speaking of stripping, there are an awful lot of highway adult stores here. And the billboards are funny because they’re like "EXIT NOW!" as if it’s an emergency to find porn while driving on the interstate. And NOT speaking of porn, there is a lot of God TV here. Ministries on every channel. What’s up with that? Oh, and I’ve decided after today that one of my series of photos will be the messages on the marquees outside of churches. They are a hoot! Also, it’s like 53 degrees at night yet it’s summer here too, right? Sheesh. Actually, I shouldn't complain because it was like Africa back home. This is a welcomed change.

So before arriving in Bucyrus, Ohio, where the annual Bratwurst Festival is, I stopped at the AAA I-76 Antique Mall and what a distraction (no guns allowed in the mall FYI). These antique malls are everywhere other than NYC and I heart them. But they are like 40,000 square feet of booths and it’s exhausting. Okay, back to the sausages! Wowsa! It was a seriously cute little festival with rides for the young-ins and lots of greasy food for the rest of us. Funnel cakes, cotton candy, deep fried Oreos, BBQ ribs, blooming onions and lots more! I went around shooting everyone and it was genuinely fun to share in this big event for this small town. And I mean small. BTW, I got to meet Miss Bratwurst 2009.

So there literally wasn’t anywhere to stay in Bucyrus, not even a scary motel. Another thing I noticed about the kids in Ohio, they’re all blonde for some reason. Their parents aren’t but they are. And on the news tonight, I learned that this guy with really white teeth that lives in this town shot 3 women in a fitness club because he was sick and tired of being turned down by women. Yea, so I’m going to close on that little tidbit. I’m rambling, I know. Tomorrow, I head to Peru, Indiana, a suggestion from Shawn at work. They pronounce it Pee-roo. Hilarious! It’s apparently the site of The International Circus Hall of Fame. Can’t wait!